A Personal Diary from the Łódź Ghetto, Kept in the Margins of a Prayer Book

"3/12/1941 - My heart is burning and my body is freezing. My head is hurting beyond all reason. Why? Is all justice forsaken?"

The National Library of Israel

3/12/1941 – “On the 26th of October, about 10,000 people were deported from Piatricawa Street. Around 100 Jews were reported killed, but there is talk of more. On the second day of Adar, my parents fled to Słomniki with just one coat between them. Their situation is very bad. My heart is burning and my body is freezing. My head is hurting beyond all reason. Why? Is all justice forsaken?”

As the years go by, we look back with increasingly greater difficulty to fully grasp what transpired in the ghettos of Europe. As fewer survivors live among us, first-hand, written accounts have become all the more crucial.

A prime example of this is the personal diary kept by Menachem Oppenheim in the Łódź Ghetto. Following the war, it was found among the ruins of the Ghetto. The book was donated to the National Library in the 1950s. What makes the diary truly unique is that it was written in the margins of a siddur, a Jewish prayer book. Menachem Oppenheim lived in the Ghetto from the winter of 1941 to the summer of 1944. He wrote dozens of entries in Hebrew and Yiddish on the pages of the prayer book. He utilized the margins of the pages and the space between the printed verses and paragraphs, exploiting any blank area on the pages of the prayer book. As far as we know, Oppenheim perished in Auschwitz like most Jews who managed to survive in the Łódź Ghetto until its liquidation by the Nazis at the end of August 1944.  

3/8/1942 – “Two years have passed since the Jews were incarcerated in the ghetto. A loaf of bread costs sixty marks… Once again, deportation notices have been sent.”  

From his diary, we learn that Menachem Oppenheim was 33 years old when he was imprisoned in the Ghetto. He was a religious Zionist, married with children. His wife and two daughters managed to escape the Ghetto just before it was locked down. Menachem worked in a carpentry shop and, at one point, was even imprisoned in the Ghetto jail.

3/10/1942 – “The deportation continues. I saw an old man and woman, who looked to be about 80 years old, pulling a handcart to the train station for their deportation… They will be dead before they reach the next stop… They are deporting people to the grave…”

The great importance of Oppenheim’s diary entries lies in his daily documentation of life in the Ghetto: working conditions, police activities, food distribution, labor, hunger, diseases, and Menachem Oppenheim’s reflections on the effect of Ghetto life on himself and his friends, which were somewhere between hope and despair, between illusion and disappointment. The diary also contains a specific record of religious life in the Ghetto and tells of how the Jews attempted to observe the holidays, what they ate on Passover, and how they prayed to God while dwelling in the hellish surroundings they found themselves in.  

4/9/1942 – “Passover 5702.  In the Ghetto there is great hunger. Only rye matzah, watery soup, and beetroot… Because of the nagging hunger, many people ate bread and so did I. The Passover Seder was prepared with only matzah and black coffee… This is my third Passover without my family. And in Passover 1942 I ate chametz for the first time…”  

Oppenheim was a gifted literary talent. His writing is beautiful and eloquent. He was probably a person with a broad education and a cultural outlook. As noted, Menachem Oppenheim evidently perished at Auschwitz. The fate of his wife and two daughters is unknown. His diary resurfaced in the 1950s in a Jerusalem bookstore. The Sephardic Derech Ha-Hayim prayer book came to the attention of biblical scholar, Professor Mordechai Zer Kavod (Ehrenkranz), who translated the personal diary within the prayer book from Yiddish before donating it to the National Library.

3/19/1942 – “After an eight week hiatus, I received 2 kilograms of wild carrots and 1 kilogram of carrots on the family register.”

Menachem Oppenheim’s diary is one item from a very large collection of manuscripts that were donated to the National Library in the wake of the Holocaust and World War II.

View Menachem Oppenheim’s entire personal diary    

If you liked this article, try these:

How Bergen-Belsen Survivors Celebrated Independence

Learning the Value of a Potato in the Holocaust

When Buchenwald Was Liberated: A First Glimpse of the Holocaust  


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